Monday, August 7, 2017

Pioneer N-50 digital transport vs Cambridge CXC review 2017

A computer is an amazing jack of all trades. You can send an email, or make a spreadsheet, do some typing / word processing, watch a YouTube video, and surf the net, and buy some stuff online. Yay! You can even listen to music on your computer! Well, of course you can duh! Because if you've read my blog you will have seen a review of the Yellowtec PUC compared to the Audiophilleo, and seen my comment about Small Player audio software.

These days computers are a ubiquitous household item, and as such people have a natural tendency to want to use the tools which are at their disposal. Even though I have spent a few years playing back music directly from my PC it wasn't personally giving me the sort of sound I really wanted, because I'd  heard CD players which I knew sounded much better than my PC. It also doesn't aesthetically or psychologically do much for me to have a PC in the audio rack in the lounge room. Although I concede that other people may not share this view.

Playing back audio from a computer has its own set of problems, which is that every playback software has its own sonic signature, and thats OK, except for that no playback software in my experience ever manages to sound quite right, and of course you need a way to get audio from your HDD into your stereo system, and that usually involves either a PCI/e sound card or a USB to
SPDIF converter or a USB DAC. Because the PC is a jack-of-all-trades, its not designed specifically for audio. PCs use a jack-of-all-trades operating system that need to do all sorts of things that you don't need for it to do to play audio. The motherboards have various switching regulators generating lots of high frequency noise which gets into the audio side of things and that's a no no for good quality sound. Of course you can use USB isolators and various ad-on thingies, and you may indeed get a better sound than you got without them, but in my opinion still it leaves something to be desired, primarily a lack of low level detail. Well, that's what I've found anyway!

Fist lets talk about the Cambridge CXC CD transport. When I bought this transport the first thing I did was play some orchestral music because it allows me to hear how well a piece of equipment is revealing low level details and tonal accuracy. The Cambridge CXC does a fantastic job of revealing low level details, even the quietest sounds can be easily understood and identified, which is something that no PC soundcard or USB converter I've tried could do properly!
The Cambridge easily sounded better than the PUC2 converter ( though I admit I am going by memory) but though the PUC2 was good, it didn't let me hear the low level details that the Cambridge CXC allowed me to hear. The CD transport just gives more of everything! More detail, more depth, more believable sound, but, even though I lived with it for a few months and loved it, I found that it was tonally a bit bright. I knew there had to be a better transport out there.

I'd been looking at the Pioneer N-50 since it was first released in 2012, but when it was new it cost a little more than I wanted to pay at the time, and so I had to wait until they were being sold at clearance pricing before I bought one. So, actually at the time of writing this article (2017) the N-50 has been superseded with a newer model with a larger screen, and a different DAC chip, but to the best of my knowledge, the digital transport section should be the same. For the purpose of this review, I am only discussing the N-50 when used as a transport feeding my stand alone Burr Brown R2R DAC.

The N-50 is the the best digital transport I've personally heard. 

I did some back and forth switching with the Cambridge CXC and found that the CXC would present the sound with a lot of attack and emphasis to the leading edge of notes, but when switching to the N-50 I discovered that the same tracks actually don't have that sort of attack and actually sound quite smooth. For example I found the CXC to present high hats in a loud and more "digital" harsh sounding way. The N-50 presents high hats quieter and more naturally. With the N50,  midrange sounds (such as vocals) are slightly more forward, but also have more subtlety and body.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that CDs pressed in the mid 1980's which in my experience often sound a bit thin, when ripped to my NAS and played back on the N-50 actually sound very nice and no longer have a steely sheen or harshness to the sound, and they actually have bass! The N-50 also allows very long listening sessions without fatigue. When I listened to Talking Heads - Little Creatures album (UK pressing, Nimubs mastering) I found that it sounded very dynamic and exciting on the CXC but wow the snare drums could take your head off! The same album on the N-50 is actually quite smooth sounding, the snare having body, but no unnecessary attack or brightness. Album after album is like this. Female vocals which previously had unnatural sibilance on every other transport have none on the N-50. The N-50 has an absence of grain across the entire audio spectrum which is also very pleasantly noticeable and this increases perceived detail.

After a fair amount of listening I suppose that the differences I'm hearing can probably be attributed to very low jitter from the N-50.

Pioneer says in their brochure that the N50 has a "High-Accuracy Master Clock". I think this is a very understated way of saying it has an extremely low jitter clock of the highest quality. Other manufacturers would be making a big deal about this, and Pioneer has probably in my opinion missed a major opportunity to discuss some obviously excellent engineering, but it seems that its not the way Pioneer does its marketing.

Due to the N-50 I believe I have been able to experience the effects of low jitter and I can now describe them.
High jitter transports do the following;
  • emphasise sibilance
  • emphasise the leading edges of notes
  • emphasise high frequency sounds causing "brightness"
  • change the tone of instruments and vocals
  • makes music sound "digital" and a bit fatiguing.
  • bury details.

Low jitter transports sound;
  • Natural
  • Balanced 
  • Do not emphasise leading edges 
  • Make listening relaxing 
  • Tonally correct
  • Detailed without drawing unnecessary attention

In closing one thing I'd like to say is that I was surprised to see that out of the 5 or so professional (commercial) reviews of the Pioneer N-50 which can be found on the Internet, not one of those reviewers chose to listen to it as a transport feeding an external DAC, and as such those reviewers missed precisely what this device does best, which is being used as an ultra low jitter digital transport!

Sources that I previously thought were very good, have dropped far down on my list of goodness.
The Pioneer N-50 is now my most highly regarded transport.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Cerwin Vega XLS-215 Review 2016

I've owned my Cerwin Vega XLS-215 speakers for over 5 years, so I am very qualified to comment upon their sound.

The Cerwin Vega XLS-215 is a physically large and imposing speaker. It uses two 15" woofers, a 6" midrange and a horn loaded silk dome tweeter. With their black veneer and red speaker surrounds and CV logo on the dustcaps they will visually dominate your listening room.   If you own a pair, everyone who visits your house will make remarks about the size of these speakers, irrespective if they are audio enthusiasts or just friends and family.

Before I describe their sound I want to  make an observation about many current "Hi Fi" Audiophile type speakers you will find in your local HiFi shop. Almost all modern hifi speakers are thin towers with small woofers. When these speakers try to reproduce bass, most of the time they sound congested when trying to do so, and there is certainly no impact even if they manage to do it! My other observation is that even though they will certainly have some redeeming feature to their sound which is usually the midrange and high frequencies, I find that often after a few minutes, most of these modern "hifi" speakers sound fatiguing because they have a forced unnatural detail in the midrange. Immediately when I listen to them they sound pretty good, but soon I can hear a sound which is too forward, and frankly to me sounds unnatural and incorrect.

That was my segway into discussing the XLS-215 and I will start by mentioning the midrange. The XLS-215  produces nicely detailed almost liquid like sound which integrates seamlessly with the high frequencies. There is nothing fatiguing about the midrange or high frequencies. The 6" midrange cone is of adequate size to reproduce low enough notes to blend with the 15" woofers. Though this transition is not quite as seamless as the mid - high transition but is still very silky.

I'm sure there are a few brand snobs who wont even consider Cerwin Vega. Well, that is their loss. 
The XLS-215 does almost everything a person could want from a full range speaker. By full range I mean that the speaker plays the full range of audible frequencies, from 30Hz to 20Khz. This speaker also plays frequencies proportionately, with bass having a strong thump down low when requied but also being smooth through the mids and gentle in the highs.  If you haven't already gotten the idea of the sound I feel it necessary to stress that its sound is actually very contrary to its appearance. By looking at it you might think a few things such as that it might sound boomy in the bass, or that it has an aggressive harsh sounding high frequency horn, or that it is all "boom and tiz", but that is completely wrong!  As the saying goes, never judge a book by its cover! This speaker is almost the opposite of what you think it is. Its overall character is smooth, clear, balanced and relaxing to listen to. Fortunately you wont need to turn up the volume to get the speaker to come alive. Its high sensitivity drivers allow listening at low volume with plenty of authoritative tonally rich bass and a seductive smooth and detailed midrange, and silky smooth highs. Yes that's a stereotypical reviewers comment which I deliberately threw in there as humor, however in this case it really is true!  You wont need a powerful amp to drive these speakers. As I've been writing this review I have been listening to my XLS-215 using a 10 Watt amp I purchased from ebay. It drives these speakers to 90 + dB with ease.
I've previously owned an Emotiva XPA-2 amplifier (which output about 500 Watts per channel @ 4 ohms) and used it to power these speakers. (incidentally I do not recommend the Emotiva amp due to hum and buzz noise issues I had with it). So potential purchasers should not be scared off by thinking they need a powerful amp to drive these speakers. I have also successfully used these speakers with an 8 Watt single ended triode valve amplifier.

So is it the perfect speaker?
Well, I've yet to hear a perfect speaker, but this one comes very close!

What are its weaknesses?
In comparison to other expensive speakers I have heard, I would say there are not many weaknesses. I have compared these speakers to JBL S4700, and B&W 803, and frankly the Cerwin Vega XLS-215 sounds better to my ears, for the following reasons- the XLS-215 has a greater bandwidth (plays lower) than both the B&W and JBL, which means to me it is more immersive and correct sounding and has the correct scale to bass sounds. The midrange is a little bit more detailed on both the JBL and B&W, but both those speakers sound fatiguing and I would personally much rather a little less detail so as long as the speaker is relaxing to listen to. Of course I respect that others may have a different view. But I'm writing this review from my point of view. One other minor weakness is that occasionally I can hear the sound of the waveguide on the mid and tweeter. This gives a slightly plasticy sound to the midrange on some notes. But I need to stress that it is not obvious at all times and only happens sometimes. I should also say that I am generally not a fan of horn speakers, but the horn, AKA waveguide on the XLS-215 is very shallow and gentle on the midrange, and strangely not very audible in the high frequencies on this particular speaker which is interesting. But having said that, it is a different sort of sound when compared to a flush mounted midrange and dome tweeter. Generally I would say that a flush mounted mid and tweeter sounds more correct and natural than any horn. But nobody is making large speakers with flush mounted mids and tweeters so its a moot point.

If I had a million dollars would I still buy these speakers?
Well, since I already own them I think its safe to say I would certainly keep them because I am very happy with them.When compared to other speakers at their price point there is nothing else that even comes close. Even if you increase the price range to$15,000 there are a few options such as the JBL S4700. But when we consider that the Cerwin Vega costs only AUD $2600 per pair, its pretty good value.

Final Note.

The midrange driver uses a fabric accordion surround which takes ages to run in, meaning the surround takes ages to loosen up. When new, the midrange sounds quite recessed and not detailed. Anyone evaluating these speakers in a shop needs to be mindful of this if they are not run in.
The woofers also need a bit of time to run in.

It should be obvious to any intelligent person that there are different speakers made for different listening preferences. There is no such thing as a perfect speaker for all people and all rooms. The XLS-215 is made for people who enjoy high fidelity, full range audio, and who want to enjoy the bold dynamics of a large high sensitivity speaker, and who want to have bass frequencies which project and couple well to a large room. If you have read this article you are probably the sort of person who will enjoy these speakers.


For anyone who might have seen a video on YouTube comparing these speakers to a pair of Klipsch speakers, you might come away with the impression that the Klipsch sound clearer. I'd like to point out a flaw with the audio of that video.  The microphone used to record the sound on that video was not capable of handling the high sound pressure levels at low frequencies produced by the Cerwin Vega XLS-215. As a result, the sound was distorted when the CV speakers are playing on that video, resulting in the CV mid/high frequencies being modulated with the low frequencies. I find YouTube videos to be a very useful resource, but in the case of that particular video, be aware that the distorting audio does not provide a fair comparison. There are other videos on YouTube which show the XLS-215 speakers playing which provide a fairer demonstration of their capabilties.


Monday, October 26, 2015

The award for best PC audio playback software of 2015 goes to.....

Many readers will know that previously I have spoken highly of players such as CMP and MQN.

Both are excellent players.

But my new favorite player is Small player

I previously thought that MQN was the best sounding player because it is dynamic but still smooth and lacking in harshness. But now that I have heard Small player I have had to re-evaluate. What I like about Small player is that it has an extremely grain-free sound which gives a perception of greater depth and detail to the music. Edges of notes are very defined. Attack is crisp. The overall sound is nimble, and layered. The high frequencies are incredibly crisp and clean. In comparison MQN sounds slow and plodding. (Note; in all fairness there are about 50 different ways you can configure MQN and my comments relate to the version I am running)

Small player is programmed in Assembly which is one form of code above machine code.
Assembly takes longer to program but is very efficient. Software programmed in C (for example) has more lines of code and is not as efficient. Simply put, C gets converted into Assembly, and in the conversion process, lots of lines of Assembly code are created, making the software bloated.

I suspect one of the reasons Small player sounds so good is its efficient use of code.

Unbelievably this software has been around since 2005 and appears to have received very little recognition among the computer audiophile crowd. I hope this now changes!

Thanks to Igor Jerosimić for writing such a wonderful audio player!

I have been running Small player on Windows Server 2012 with Fidelizer into a USB SPDIF converter and DAC. But it also sounds excellent on my laptop without any Fidelizing.

Small player wins my award for Audio playback software of 2015.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Audio Technica AT150MLX vs Ortofon 2M Black review

This review was conducted with the AT150MLX fitted to a Kenwood KD500 with SME 3009 Series 3 tonearm. The 2M Black was fitted to a Linn Sondek with Origin Live Encounter tonearm. Although I would very much have liked to have compared the cartridges on the same turntable and tonearm, neither the Origin live or the SME has a detachable headshell and so swapping cartridges would have added too much time between listening sessions. The review was conducted by listening to one or more tracks on one turntable then immediately listening to the same track or tracks on the other turntable. Please take what you want from this review.

Despite these turntables being very different, the sound coming from both decks in the same system using the same phono preamp was incredibly similar. I wasn't expecting a Kenwood to sound so similar to a Linn, but they did! From this I have learned that a good turntable is a good turntable irrespective of its reputation, recommendation on a forum, its mystique, cult status or lack of. I always recommend people to come to their own conclusions by trying equipment before making a judgement.

 The sound coming from both turntables was well balanced. Neither cartridge sounded bright, or boomy and I was surprised to find that the sonic balance was near identical but I will attempt to describe some of the differences below.

There are some notable differences between the AT150MLX and the Ortofon 2M Black. The AT150MLX uses a gold plated boron cantilever with nude Microline stylus. The 2M Black uses an aluminum cantilever with nude shibata stylus.
The difference between these two stylus is that the shibata has a wider radius and does not sit as far down in the groove as the microline stylus which sits very deep in the groove. Audio Technica says the microline is very close to the shape of the cutting stylus used to cut records. Shibata cut was developed in the 1970's to allow the cartridge to reproduce the very high frequency carrier signals on quadraphonic records. Both microline and shibata stylus profiles provide a large contact area with the sides of the record groove which reduces pressure on the groove, and simultaneously reduces wear on the stylus. Both profiles are superior to a regular eliptical stylus in this regard. Both profiles are excellent at cleanly reproducing high frequency sounds from records.

Differences that I observed between the two cartridges are that the 2M black has slightly softer more silky and rounder sounding high frequencies. The AT150MLX has very fast and crisp sounding high frequencies. Tonally there is a slightly warm tinge to the 2M Black. The AT150MLX sounds slightly cooler and leaner. However I must stress that the difference in tonally is quite small and in the grand scheme of things is quite unimportant. Effectively both cartridges have an extremely similar sonic signature.

But differences there are, and if I was to be ultra picky, I can fault with both cartridges, though neither fault is a deal breaker, and in isolation without doing an AB comparison its unlikely that anyone would be picky about the sound that comes from either. However what I observed is this;
The 2M Black sounds a bit slow, warm and rounded. The AT150MLX can sound sharper faster meaning that the leading edge of sounds can appear somewhat highlighted, and this applies to the entire frequency spectrum.
But I have to stress that neither present the sound as obviously wrong or incorrect. But after doing the AB comparison I thought to myslef - wouldn't it be nice if I could have the speed of the AT150MLX, and the slightly warm presentation of the 2M Black. If I could have a hybrid of the two cartridges I think id be very happy.

In summary;

The 2M Black provides truly excellent sound. Its forte is its ability to provide a highly detailed and easy to listen to tonal spectrum where everything is well balanced but slightly on the rose coloured side of neutral, and this sound will suit many people.

In comparison, the AT150MLX also provides equally excellent sound its microline stylus providing slightly sharper edges of notes, with very noticeable improvement in speed and accuracy in the  high frequencies, and this speed and accuracy flows through to the rest of the audio spectrum.

There is one final noticeable difference between these two cartridges which is the ability of the microline stylus of the 150MLX to sit below the groove wear resulting in a very noticeable reduction in surface noise compared to the shibata stylus of the the 2M Black which sits higher in the groove.

I think it should be obvious that I favor the AT150MLX. I honestly think it is the more accurate of these two cartridges. But the 2M Black is just so easy to listen to, whereas the AT is always presenting so much speed that its always begging the listener to sit up and listen. Whereas the 2M Black has a certain balance of fine detail and ease with its presentation.

Lucky for those who want a new moving magnet cartridge, we have two excellent cartridges in an affordable price range.

For those who prefer fast leading edges of notes and don't like a rose coloured presentation then the AT150MLX is for you.

For those who prefer excellent levels of detail with a very coherent relaxing and musical experience the 2M Black is for you.

But so similar are these cartridges that assuming correct set up (and cartridge loading) I honestly believe that any discerning listener could live with either cartridge. They are both excellent.

The AT150MLX can be purchased for around AUD $400 and the 2M Black costs about double at
AUD $800

So based only on price I would declare the winner to be the AT150MLX.
If based on listening, then its a very tough call, and I would say that it comes down to personal preference, and system matching. In that regard I will declare it a tie.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Coral 12SA-1 speaker kit user manual

I have included the Coral 12SA-1 speaker kit builders manual here for peoples reference.
The Coral 12SA-1 is a very nice sounding speaker.
I hope this information is helpful.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Reel to Reel tape - Pop a vein? No - Pop Pavanne

I have been listening to a few Reel to Reel tapes. (They sound fantastic.)

I thought I would post this one here because it seems to be rare. There is no mention of it on Discogs, or anywhere else I have found. 
The artist is The new Elizabethans, the title of the album is Pop Pavanne. I suspect the music was recorded somewhere around 1967-1969 based on the only other recording by this group that I know of.
The reel runs at 7 1/2" per second. This one is in mint condition and has no tape stretch or drop outs!
Astor AST314 is the catalog number. 

The style of music I would describe as 1960's orchestral. I guess the band is called  The new Elizabethans because they use harpsichord in most of the tracks. There is also bass guitar, acoustic guitar, castanets, bells, tambourines, flute, trumpet and more. The album incorporates many styles but is a sort of cross between classical harpsichord crossed with flamenco guitar, and easy listening lounge music.
I like it! 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Vinyl and Digital sound

Vinyl vs Digital.

Why do people get so emotional when discussing these two formats?

Speaking for myself I certainly was very peeved in the 1990's when some LP's I wanted to buy were not available (locally anyway) and I had to buy the CD.

Back then I listened to all my music on vinyl. I was used to the sound, and I found the sound of CD to have a harsh and unnatural top end, and a glassy harsh and unnatural presentation to the sound. I was using a Marantz CD-40 with the famous TDA1541A.

After many years of searching I eventually found a CD player which was relatively pleasing to my ears. Strangely it was a vintage unit -The Akai CD-A7 with a Burr brown PCM53.
It was the first CD player that I found to have bass that was reminiscent of a vinyl LP, and a top end that was reasonably gentle on the ear. The unit had a substantial weight due to the two huge circuit boards and wires that ran between each board. Quite unlike new CD players that often have only one small board, and one chip to control the CD drive and another one or two chips to do the DA conversion.

This was a turning point for me. Finally I could listen to CD without being grossly offended. I purchased many CD's after this point, but still continued to listen to vinyl. I should mention that despite finding this inoffensive CD player, I still preferred the sound quality of vinyl.

Since my CD collection had grown, and tastes in the music I listened to had changed, I found myself listening less and less to vinyl. My record player had become old and my stylus was worn. I retired my record collection, and exclusively listened to CD or music ripped losslessly to my computer, and played back on my DAC.

I've owned many DAC's, and after going through quite a lot of them trying to find the right sound, I finally came back to the the TDA1541A in non oversampling mode. I use a now discontinued kit DAC which was made by HiFi DIY with a 6922 valve output stage. This DAC is really nice to listen to. It provides deep bass, ultra clear midrange, gentle highs and a warmish / un-digital presentation. When comparing it to other DAC's this one has everything the others have but with greater frequency extension and greater tonality to the sound. I have heard DAC's with a clearer top end, but their overall presentation is not as conducive to long listening sessions - in other words I get fatigued with these DAC's and end up swapping them out for my NOS TDA1541A.

I recently got back into vinyl. I bought a number of record players and some new old stock cartridges. I also bought a little bear phono preamp. I never sold my records, and have recently bought over 200 used records from op-shops. I've washed them, and listened to a few of them.

Being a continuous waveform, analog has a certain sound. The audio is not sampled many times a second then reconstructed for listening, basically what went into the microphone is what you get out of your speakers. When you have a record in good condition, the music comes out like silk - Its very easy on the ear. When I exclusively listen to CD or digital files, I get used to the sound. When I listen to vinyl after listening to CD, the analog sound its obvious, it's so smooth and organic and natural.
Going back to CD sounds clunky, brittle and harsh.